Innovative placemaking programs make Volunteer State communities vibrant destinations.
Beyond the bright lights of Tennessee’s largest cities, an impressive roster of smaller communities is enhancing their downtowns and cultural assets, aiming to create new business opportunities as well as exciting attractions for residents and visitors.
To turn their visions into reality, many cities are taking advantage of programs like Tennessee Main Street and Thriving Communities, both of which are accelerating community development efforts and helping cities reach new economic heights.
In 2017, East Tennessee’s Athens – declared a Tennessee Main Street community in 2016 – was one of four cities selected from the Greater Chattanooga region to join the Thriving Communities program. Supported by the Lyndhurst Foundation and the Thrive Regional Partnership, Thriving Communities helps communities become more vibrant by building upon existing assets.
Lauren Shepherd, executive director of the Athens Area Council for the Arts, served alongside other local leaders, including Lisa Dotson, Whitney Kimball Coe and Kay Simmons, on a volunteer committee to determine how to best enhance the community as part of the Thriving Communities’ 10-month design thinking program.
The group decided to revamp a vacant downtown lot, aiming to turn it into a gathering place called Pocket Park – an outdoor destination designed to connect and engage locals and newcomers alike. A $20,000 grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation got the project off the ground in early 2019.
Pocket Park is nearly complete, and it’s already hosted events like Athens’ inaugural Civic Saturday and Arts in the Park during Pumpkintown, the community’s annual fall festival.
“Our community has no shortage of arts, cultural and historical assets,â€ Shepherd says. “Our work with Thriving Communities helped us realize that we could strengthen our efforts to unify our existing assets and build bridges between community groups and organizations and enhance private and public partnerships.”
Marion County’s Whitwell also became part of the Thriving Communities program in 2017, and the community’s team of volunteers decided to build a historic replica of Whitwell’s former train depot that will serve as a community hub and host local music and art events.
The new building will be constructed using wood from the original depot that was saved by a local resident – a perfect example of how much the Whitwell community values its history and heritage.
“The Thriving Communities program gave us the opportunity to determine what sets our community apart and how we can capitalize on that, and we realized it’s our rich history that makes us so special,â€ says David Smith, Whitwell Elementary School principal and member of Whitwell’s Thriving Communities team. “We’re excited to see this project come to fruition and for our community to enjoy it.”
In 2006, Dyersburg became part of the Tennessee Main Street Program, a statewide resource currently helping nearly three dozen communities leverage their assets by applying the National Main Street Center’s Comprehensive Four-Point Approach that includes design, economic vitality, promotion and organization.
One of Main Street Dyersburg’s first projects was the Main Street Dyersburg Farmers Market, which began in 2007 and is still going strong today. Held downtown on the banks of the Forked Deer River in the River Park development, the producer-only market runs from mid-June through September on Tuesday and Saturday mornings.
Main Street Dyersburg has also worked to preserve the history of the northwest Tennessee community’s downtown district that now includes historically appropriate lighting and a complete streetscape, courtesy of the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the Transportation Alternatives Program. Recently, Main Street Dyersburg qualified for $100,000 in commercial faÃ§ade improvements through Tennessee Main Street.
In addition, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development awarded Main Street Dyersburg a $50,000 Main Street Entrepreneur Grant in 2017, which helped create a coworking and incubator space called The Mill Workspace that’s art of the downtown burgeoning Mill Street Corridor.
“We’re slowly checking off our list of everything we want to do,â€ says Steve Guttery, director of downtown development. “As a result, we’re drawing more retailers and amenities downtown, and it’s becoming a true destination.”